Although she got her break with the rest of the sixties New-York folk scene, the Cree singer-songwriter has always evolved in a class of her own. This year, she will receive the Allan Waters Humanitarian Award at Canada’s JUNO Awards.
In a recent interview with Acoustic Guitar, Sainte-Marie describes her entrance on the folk scene: a Cree native of Canada, brought up by foster parents in Massachusetts, she wasn’t really taken by the message of peace conveyed by folk-singers of the time: “They were singing “This land is your land, this land is my land.” They didn’t realize how offensive that is to Native-American people.” She would make sure they eventually did, as she penned several songs to describe the plight of Natives, such as Now That The Buffalo’s Gone, Buried My Heart at Wounded Knee, or My County ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying that she describes as “Indian 101 in six minutes” (tested in class: it works). The song covers everything from broken treaties to westerns to American Indian Boarding school, broken treaties and diseased blankets. A visibly shaken Sainte-Marie performed the song for Peete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.
Still, Sainte-Marie isn’t a mere poster girl for Native Americans. She’s also passionately anti-war and one of the first song she ever wrote, The Universal Soldier, became a hit when covered by British singer Donovan (and was more recently covered and updated by First Aid Kit.) Singing the song as an anti-Vietnam war anthem, she got herself black-listed from radio by the Nixon administration. See below for her own words on how she wrote the song.
Other of Sainte-Marie’s songs attracted attention through covers. The biographical Cod’ine, which tells of her addiction to the substance, was covered by artists as diverse as Courtney Love, Janis Joplin or Donovan or Gram Parson. She also became the first Native-American woman to receive an Academy Award for co-writing Up Where We Belong. One of my favorite songs of hers, The Dream Tree, gained renewed attention through a cover by young Canadian fiddler Owen Pallett.
The Dream Tree is extracted of Sainte-Marie’s 1969 Illuminations album. This proved to be a turning point in her career: it completely tanked. Departing from her usual style, she produced it entirely electronically. Here voice is often altered, and the sounds all come from synthesizers. She kept on experimenting afterwards and elements of electronica are still present in her most recent albums. Many people now credit Illumination for paving the way to Freak Folk creations of Devendra Banhart or Joanna Newsom.
Native American music is also feature in several of her songs. Her the educator (she was trained as a teacher after her studies in theology), Sainte-Marie used her five-year role in Sesame Street to educate about mouth bows (which work a bit like a jaw harp.) Talking of badassery, here’s a clip of her breastfeeding on a kid’s show. Imagine the stir if it were to happen today…
She also wrote Starwalker, a song she defines herself as a “incendiary powwow rock”.
By now, you must have noticed and either hated or loved her distinct vibrato which is often considered her trademark. Sainte-Marie, a self-taught guitarist, is also famous for her personal tunings – she used more than a dozen- which inspired fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell to create her own. Mitchell credited Sainte-Marie for helping her launch her career: she covered The Circle Game and also introduced her to managers that helped Mitchell build a career.
Today, Sainte-Marie, an artist, singer-songwriter, educator, is all but retired, as her latest album shows. This Humanitarian award crowns decades of artistry and advocacy for an artist who escapes categorization.